Facing the same problems of adaptation as Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007), nominally how to successfully dramatise the psychological complexities of a first-person (unreliable) narrator whose recalled memories are clouded by the passing of time, Never Let Me Go suffers from its stultifying respect for its literary progenitor, sticking faithfully to the details of Kazuo Ishiguro’s plot whilst disregarding any of the author’s ethical or social examination.
In an alternate modern day Britain, Cathy, Tommy and Ruth attend Hailsham House, a country boarding school with a secret. The children are not allowed to venture outside the school boundaries and are kept entirely sheltered from the outside world. Encouraged to pursue artistic and sporting activities, it’s not until teacher Sally Hawkins breaks protocol and explains everything to the kids that they fully understand their reasons for being at Hailsham and the very purpose of their existence.
The sci-fi elements of the story are largely background to the central love triangle that evolves between the three leads, resulting in angst-filled gazes from moody teens and plentiful close ups of Mulligan’s quivering lip, its dirge-like, unrelentingly torpid pace aims for haunting but lands squarely at dull. It’s a film with an extra helping of ‘sincerity’, beautifully shot by Adam Kimmel (Capote) in muddy greens and browns but let down by the slow, unimaginatively ‘worthy’ direction of Mark Romanek and his over reliance on Rachel Portman’s Oscar-baiting score.
The acting is a mixed bag, Andrew Garfield is great and Carey Mulligan solid (lots of concentrated emoting!) but Charlotte Rampling missed a trick with her straight-laced headmistress and the less said about Knightley the better.
By keeping us entirely with the naïve protagonists, we’re denied the context of the larger picture meaning the closest we come to the puppeteers of their repression is Rampling’s headmistress, whose last act (supposedly devastating) revelation is signposted so early it arrives as anything but. The awkward narration merely serves the progression of the plot rather than providing any insights into Cathy, as does Ruth’s confession to her friends at the beach, a seemingly unmotivated plot device to get Tommy and Cathy together.
Without wanting to give away the film’s central conceit, it shows its cards early, discarding the more interesting ideas of its early scenes for the more conventional ‘doomed romance’ tale that it settles into (I’d love to see what David Cronenberg would have done with this). There are some big ideas here, all from Ishiguro’s novel, but the film merely tips its hat to them rather than engaging them on anything other a superficial level, a trick repeated in the characterisation and simplified narrative.
It’s got Oscar written all over it, the kind of unadventurous and stately filmmaking that takes itself incredibly seriously and has an acclaimed literary source. It’s better than The Island (2005), but I guess that’s not saying much.
Never Let Me Go – 2010 – United Kingdom – 105 mins – Dir : Mark Romanek
Screening as the Opening Night Gala of the London Film Festival on Wednesday 13th October and also on Friday 15th & Sunday 17th October. Tickets available at www.bfi.org.uk/lff